Article originally published at Smashing Magazine.
Many dismiss copywriting as something that ad agency people do. Truthfully, all of us need to pay close attention to copywriting if we want to achieve our business objectives.
The goal of a “regular” text is to inform or entertain. The goal of Web copy (and ideally your website in general) is to get people to do something—to sign up, make a purchase, or something similar. Hiring a professional copywriter can be very expensive, which is one of the reasons why this is a valuable skill to have yourself.
“I don’t need to learn copywriting, I write based on how it sounds to me.”
Think you don’t need to learn copywriting?
David Ogilvy, the father of modern advertising, addressed this in his book Ogilvy on Advertising. One of his copywriters told him that he had not read any books about advertising; he preferred to rely on his own intuition.
Ogilvy asked him: “Suppose your gallbladder has to be removed this evening. Will you choose a surgeon who has read some books on anatomy and knows where the gallbladder, is or someone who relies on his own intuition?”
What distinguishes top experts from mediocre players is that the best know more. You can write better copy if you know more about it.
Table of contents
The Process Of Writing Great Copy
Everything is easier with the right process. If your approach to copywriting is “I’ll just try to be convincing”, you’re setting yourself up for failure.
You don’t even need to be a “natural writer” to come up with excellent copy, you just need the right process and some key principles about writing copy that sells.
The best processes are simple, as those are the ones you actually use.
Here are the six steps of effective copywriting process:
- Research: customer, product and competition.
- Outline and guideposts.
- Draft copy.
- Conversion boost.
- Revise, rearrange.
And now let’s get to the details:
This is often the most time-intensive part of your copywriting.
“You don’t stand a tinker’s chance of producing successful advertising unless you start doing your homework. I have always found this extremely tedious, but there is no way around it.”
— David Ogilvy
David Ogilvy had the task to do copywriting for a Rolls Royce ad. He spent three weeks reading about it before he came up with the headline and the rest of the copy. While he was talking about advertising, it equally applies to your website copy—the goal is to get people to do something.
Ogilvy’s famous Rolls Royce ad.
You need to figure out why people buy the product, how they buy it, what they use it for, and what really matters to them. If you don’t have this figured out, you really cannot write a copy that works. When it’s your own business that you’re writing copy for, things go much faster, of course, as you know the product and the competition.
Gauge the Competition
You need to be aware of your direct competition, how they present their product, and what claims they seem to be making. If you are not selling something unique, you are selling as much for your competition as you are selling for yourself. Being “like” others or choosing to be “one of the leading providers of” is a losing strategy.
Neuromarketing research tells us that differentiating our claims is the key to talking to the old brain, the decision making part of our brain. Our whole business identity should be different from the competition, and the claims we’re making about our product should stand out.
Get Out of the Office
The answers are not in your office and you won’t have eureka-moments at brainstorming meetings (working solo is far more effective anyway). You have to interview people. Don’t waste time interviewing random people, you need to talk to your ideal customers and find out what’s on their minds.
Find out what they think about your kind of product, what language they use when they talk about it, what attributes are important to them, and what promises would most likely convince them to buy it. Pick the last 10 to 20 customers (who still remember their purchasing experiences), and ask them these questions (recording the interviews is a good idea, but ask for permission):
- Who are you? What do you do? (customer profile)
- What does our product help you do? (helps you understand how they use it, tells you words they use to describe our product)
- Which parameters did you compare on different options? (which features matter)
- What were the most important ones? (key pains to solve)
- Which alternatives did you consider? (competitors we have to look at)
- What made you choose our product? (our key advantage)
- What were the biggest hesitations and doubts before the purchase? (things we have to address in the copy)
- Were there questions you needed answers to, but couldn’t find any? (necessary information to provide)
- What information would have helped you make the decision faster? (same as above)
- In which words would you recommend it to somebody you know? (words they use to describe our product)
Take note of the exact wording they use. Your copy needs to match the conversation in your customer’s mind. If you talk about “scribing devices” and he needs a pen, there’s a mismatch.
My point is that when customers see the product described in words they have in their mind already, then you’ve got their attention.
2. Outline And Guideposts
Next step: write the outline. Guideposts are the markers that help you write the content.
Writing an outline usually only takes a few minutes and provides a road map for the rest of the project. It allows you to complete the work faster and ensures that you stick to the flow.
The outline structure will depend on the page you’re writing the copy for. The main pages you need a well thought-out copy in place are your home page and product pages.
Here are outline templates I personally use, and you can copy them. I’ve tweaked and tested them over the years, and this model works the best for me.
Home Page Copy
Your home page copy structure depends a lot on your business. A nail salon would have a different approach from an e-commerce store; a website selling mobile app design courses is different from a hosting company. Hence, it’s basically impossible for me to give you an outline template for your home page.
What IS universal is the value proposition. Every home page needs one (unless you’re a very well-known brand)
A value proposition is a promise of value to be delivered. It’s the primary reason a prospect should buy from you. The value proposition is usually a block of text with a visual.
There is no one right way to go about it, but I suggest you start with the following formula:
What is the end-benefit you’re offering, in one short sentence. Can mention the product and/or the customer. Attention grabber.
- Sub-headline or a two-to-three sentence paragraph:
A specific explanation of what you do/offer, for whom, and why is it useful.
- Bullet points:
List the key benefits or features.
Here’s a list of useful value proposition examples you can check out.
Product Page Copy Outline
Product page is where you sell the value of your product and where the user takes action (adds to cart, sign up, makes a purchase, etc.).
- Name of the product.
- Value proposition: what’s the end-benefit of this product and who is it for?
- Specific and clear overview of what the product does and why is that good (features and benefits).
- What’s the pain that it solves? Description of the problem.
- List of everything in the product (e.g. curriculum of the course, list of every item in the package, etc.).
- Technical information: parameters, what do you get and how does it work?
- Objection handling. Make a list of all possible FUDs (fears, uncertainties, doubts) and address them.
- Bonuses (what you get on top of the offer).
- Money-back guarantee (+ return policy).
- Call to action.
- Expectation setting: what happens after you buy?
What you now have in place is like a skeleton. Next step would be to start writing the draft version of the copy by filling in the blanks.
3. Draft Copy
Start filling in the blanks in the template above, and keep these points in mind for the style of your writing.
Avoid Jargon and Blandvertising
The goal of the copy is to connect with the reader, and guide them towards an action.
“Human relationships are about communicating. Business jargon should be banished in favor of simple English. Simplicity is a sign of truth and a criterion of beauty. Complexity can be a way of hiding the truth.”
— Helena Rubinstein
Using complicated, fancy words does not make you seem any smarter or your solution any better—it just turns everybody off. Who wants to read something that doesn’t feel like it’s written for them? Talk to people like a real human. If you wouldn’t use a phrase on your website in a conversation with a customer, then don’t use it.
In addition to fancy words, avoid meaningless phrases. What do “on-demand marketing software”, “integrated solutions” or “flexible platform” really mean anyway?
Or useless phrases like “changing the way X is done”, “paradigm shifting …” or “exceeding customer expectations”—stop the nonsense. These bland phrases have long lost any meaning, and you will just waste precious attention time. You can see a list of the top 100 most overused buzzwords and marketing speak in press releases here.
Another thing to avoid—superlatives and hype. Saying things like “the best”, “world leader”, “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” will just ruin your integrity. People don’t believe such claims anyway (even if they’re true).
What to do instead? Be specific.
“Clearer and more specific subject lines convert better.”
— Bob Kemper, Senior Director of Sciences, MECLABS.
While in that specific quote Bob was focused on subject lines, this principle applies equally well to all copywriting. Specific is believable, specific is attractive, specific is convincing. Don’t be vague, be specific.
“We have the best coffee in the world” vs “Our estate earned the ‘world’s best coffee’ title at the Specialty Coffee Association of America’s Roasters Guild for the third year in a row.” Which claim is more believable?
You can use a superlative if you back it up.
Here’s an example. Can you understand what they offer?
Specific headline. Specific call to action with a specific explanation of what they get when they sign up. Specific benefits listed. Specific image to show the product in action.
It Has to Be About Them
Remember the old brain I mentioned before?
Our brains have three layers, and the oldest part—the old brain—is the decision-making part.
The “Old Brain” is the part that humans and their predecessors have had the longest—like 450 million years or so. So the part of the brain that controls decisions is fairly primitive and mostly concerned with survival.
If your copy is about you (your product, your company) and not the prospect (his problems, his life), you will fail. Make it about them. Too many companies start by stating “our company was founded…”, “we offer …” or something especially useless like “welcome to your website”.
Instead of saying “we specialize in dog training”, say “train your dog in two weeks”—move the focus from you to the benefit they will receive. People care about themselves—not you—and whether your website can be helpful in some way.
How Much Information Should I Provide?
Tests have shown that 79% of people don’t read, they just skim. However, 16% read everything.
Those 16% are your main target group, the most interested people. If people are not interested in what you are selling, it doesn’t matter how long or short your sales copy is. If they are interested, you should give them as much information as possible.
Complete information is the best sales copy. A study by IDC showed that 50% of the uncompleted purchases were due to lack of information. They can always skip parts and click the “buy” button once they have the information they need. But if they read through the whole thing and they’re still not convinced, then you have a problem.
This is why you should always strive to say everything that can possibly be said about your product. You cannot be there in person to explain and answer the questions, so your copy needs to do it for you.
All at Once or Make Them Click?
Long form copy works just great, but it’s not necessary to provide all the information on a single page. It’s okay to move supplemental information onto a different page (layer, popup, etc.) and just link to it.
For instance, Amazon often hides full technical information of products behind a link—since it’s only interesting to the hardcore tech savvy customers (and most customers are not).
Full technical details available after clicking a link.
The important thing is that all the information needed to make the decision is on a single page. Don’t make people
work click to read stuff that you want them to read anyway (like features, benefits, testimonials, pricing, etc.).
When, Where and If at All Should I Show the Price?
Some people think that the price drives readers away, and they should hide it somehow—or make it hard to get to. While there is truth in that sometimes, it’s mostly false.
- People always want to know how much things cost.
- If you don’t publish the price, have a “get a quote” form instead. But if your competition does, they may get the client.
You should always make the price easy to find, but for more complex / expensive products communicate the value before the price.
Let’s say you’re selling a copper vase. Price: $990.
Seems expensive. But what if you knew that it was designed by Andy Warhol and previously used by Kurt Cobain? If you know who these people are and respect them, this changes everything, and it might seem like a steal instead.
So communicate value before price.
If your price is cheap, you want people to know it. If it’s expensive, the price qualifies the right people who are convinced to buy your copy. Giving price details also convinces your reader of the image and brand value of your product.
4. Conversion Boost
Once you have the content in place, it’s time to give it a conversion boost. The goal of the website copy is to convert the reader into a buyer (or subscriber, lead, etc.). There are certain things we can do to improve the conversion rate (the percentage of readers that take action) of the copy.
We’ll use three guides here to make the copy sell better:
- Conversion frameworks.
- Science of persuasion.
- Neuromarketing research.
Conversion boost. Image credit APM Alex.
Conversion Frameworks and Why They Matter
Conversion frameworks are a structured approach for increasing website conversion rates. The most prominent ones have been fine-tuned over the years and have been proven to boost sales.
While the conversion frameworks apply to a website as a whole, they can also be used as frameworks to improve sales copy.
C = 4m + 3v + 2(i-f) – 2a
This is not a lesson in physics, but a conversion formula developed by Marketing Experiments. Translation:
C = Probability of conversion
m = Motivation of user (when)
v = Clarity of the value proposition (why)
i = Incentive to take action
f = Friction elements of process
a = Anxiety about entering information
Summary: The probability of conversion depends on the match between the offer and visitor motivation + the clarity of the value proposition + (incentives to take action now—friction)—anxiety. The numbers next to each character signify the importance of them.
How to apply this to your copy:
- Is your value proposition easy to understand and perfectly clear? Would everyone understand what you offer and how it’s beneficial to them?
- Go through your copy and see if there’s any way to make your statements clearer.
- Communicate value: don’t just list features, turn them into benefits.
- Make a list of all possible questions, doubts and objections that prospects might have in the buying process. Address them.
- Make the buying or signup process as easy as possible, remove everything that is not absolutely necessary.
- Add microcopy: explain why you need certain data and what happens after they give it to you.
- Provide full information: what happens after they buy, what can they expect, when is the product shipped, what’s the delivery time.
- Add risk reversal: what kind of guarantees are in place? What happens if they don’t like it, or it’s not what they thought, etc?
The Science of Persuasion
Persuasion has been researched thoroughly. Mr. Cialdini is undoubtedly the biggest authority on the field. His books are bestsellers and have been on the “must-read” list for marketers and copywriters for years.
In his research, Cialdini came up with six scientific principles of persuasion that will help guide you to become more effective at getting people to do what you want. In case you’re not familiar with those principles, then here’s the summary:
Principle 1: Reciprocity
People feel obligated to give back to others who have given to them.
How to use it: teach your prospect something useful in your copy, give away free stuff, and better yet—add value to your prospects long before you even start to sell them something.
Principle 2: Liking
We prefer to say “yes” to those we know and like.
How to use it: talk/write like a human, connect with the reader, share details about yourself. Blog. Be friendly and cool (like Richard Branson, Oprah, Gary V).
Principle 3: Social Proof
People decide what’s appropriate for them to do in a situation by examining and following what others are doing.
How to use it: show how many others are already using your product. Show off your numbers. Use testimonials. Link to 3rd-party articles.
Principle 4: Authority
People rely on those with superior knowledge or perspective for guidance on how to respond AND what decisions to make.
How to use it: Demonstrate your expertise. Show off your resume and results. Get celebrity (in your niche) endorsements.
Principle 5: Consistency
Once we make a choice/take a stand, we will encounter personal and interpersonal pressure to behave consistently with that commitment.
How to use it: Start small and move up from there. Sell something small at first (a no-brainer deal), even if you make no money on it. They now see themselves as your customer, and will most likely return to make a larger purchase.
Principle 6: Scarcity
Opportunities appear more valuable when they are less available.
How to use it: Use time or quantity limited bonuses. Limit access to your product. Promote exclusivity.
What Neuromarketing Teaches Us
Research in neuromarketing (put together in this book) reveals interesting things about our brains.
Neuromarketing study in action. Image credit: SMI Eye Tracking.
We’re usually trying to talk to the “new brain”—the sophisticated one—but it’s the brute “old brain” that makes all the decisions, so we need to dumb it down. Here’s the formula for talking to the old brain:
Selling probability = Pain x Claim x Gain x (Old Brain)3
- First you need to identify the prospect’s pain and make sure they acknowledge the pain before you start to sell them anything. Then, you’ve got to differentiate your claims from your competitors. The strongest claim is the one that eliminates the strongest pain.
- Next, you have to show convincing proof to back the claims up. The “Old Brain” is resistant to new ideas and concepts, so your proof must be very convincing. Show tangible evidence, data, before & after comparisons, testimonials, and case studies.
- In order to reach the old brain, you need to start with a “grabber”—something that really gets the attention (“if you’re selling fire extinguishers, start with fire”, like Ogilvy said). Second—the “Old brain” is visual, so use a big picture to illustrate and reinforce your message. Visuals get to the brain much faster than words. Best visuals show contrast—before/after, beginning/end, then/now.
How to apply it to your copy:
- Start with a grabber—something that evokes emotion.
- Address the pain from the get-go.
- Use a big picture next to your value proposition, one that the prospect can identify with.
- Are your claims different from the competition?
- Add proof to your claims in all possible formats.
5. Revise And Rearrange
Done with conversion boosting? Now enjoy a full night of sleep and come back to the copy in the morning.
A fresh look a day later will help you spot inconsistencies, missing information, and flaws in the general flow of the copy. Use this time to add more information, rearrange the order of different blocks and fix the typos (spelling mistakes can cost you customers).
Before you publish the sales copy, it always pays to get two or three other people to read it and give you feedback. You want feedback from your ideal customers—do they get any questions that were left unanswered? Is there any part that needs to be made clearer? And peers—other marketers or entrepreneurs. What could make the offer better and more credible?
Once the editing is complete, you can make it live on your website. Don’t guess whether the headline or value propositions are as good as they can be, immediately launch two versions of the copy and test them.
There is no good way to predict how well the copy will do. Sometimes the conversion rates can skyrocket overnight. Sometimes the new copy turns out to be a downright dud. (That’s why you need to conduct copy testing – a tool like Copytesting can help you identify shortcomings in a matter of hours).
You need to test your copy. Image credit Horia Varlan.
Maybe it’s because the offer is weak. Perhaps the headline is the bottleneck. It’s impossible to put the finger on the problem as all you have are hypothesis. The only way to know is to test.
Don’t trust a copywriter who says he always writes killer copy on his first try. Nobody does.
Most common problems:
- Your value proposition is poor.
- The offer doesn’t match the audience’s needs.
- The headline is weak.
- It’s not clear how the visitor benefits from this.
Start with A/B testing value propositions, and go from there.
Writing great copy is a skill you have to learn just like anything else. Use the outline and the tips to get started on the right track. Stephen King, the famous writer, said that if you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. I believe the same goes for writing great copy.
The best Web copy is not the one that uses sophisticated persuasion and mind manipulation techniques. The best copy provides full information about the product, its benefits, and makes it clear whether it’s the right one for the user.